Conservation Treatment: A Drawing by Sir Aston Webb

This spring, I conducted conservation treatment on an architectural drawing from the Alexander Architectural Archives.  The drawing, by British architect Sir Aston Webb, shows a late-19th-century renovation of the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great.  At over 900 years old, St. Bart’s is the oldest surviving church in London!

The drawing presented several condition issues.  It was covered in a significant layer of grime, likely the result of storage in a sooty London office.  The margins displayed a thick layer of brittle, cracked, brown adhesive, likely left behind by a previous display mat.  Most significantly, the drawing had been executed on drawing board, a commercially-produced material that becomes acidic with age.  Given the board’s deterioration, cracks and losses had occurred, and were likely to worsen with handling.  The goals of treatment were to improve stability, access, and aesthetics, and to reduce likelihood of future damage.

First, the drawing was first surface cleaned with brushes and soot sponges, resulting in a notable change in contrast and legibility.  Surface cleaning removed acidic components from paper’s surface to slow future pH shifts and to prepare for water-based treatment.

Raking light reveals the extent of grime removed during surface cleaning

Next, the residual adhesive was softened with successive applications of a methyl cellulose poultice, and mechanically removed with a microspatula.  Methyl cellulose is frequently used in conservation as a controlled moisture delivery method.  The residual adhesive is glue made from animal hide, so it responds to water without need for more aggresive solvents.

Removing adhesive with methyl cellulose

Then, the drawing was removed from its acidic backing board.  This process involved using a modified bone tool to split the drawing from its board. Remaining fibers were then pared away with a modified lifting knife while working on a light table.  This process represents a major change for the item that requires justification.  In this case, removing the backing significantly reduces the risk of future damage, and no significant content was on the back of the drawing.

Portions of the backing board have been split from the drawing

Last, the drawing was washed on damp blotter to reduce acidity, remove degradation components, and reduce discoloration.  A lining of Japanese tissue was then adhered with reversible wheat starch paste to provide ongoing flexibility and stability.

A Japanese tissue lining is adhered with wheat starch paste and a tamping brush

Thanks to the Alexander Architectural Archives for the opportunity to work on this drawing.  I hope to visit this building in London someday!

Before treatment
After treatment

Students Compare Flattening Methods for Tracing Paper

This spring, my lab students had a unique opportunity to compare the effectiveness of two treatment methods.  While ours was an informal observation, it was nevertheless informative for future projects!

Our class was conducting conservation treatment on a batch of rolled architectural drawings.  These drawings were on tracing paper, a material that can respond unpredictably to water exposure.  Unfortunately, the most effective way to flatten rolled documents is through humidification!  This poses a challenge for both preservation and access.

After testing our media for water solubility, the first half of the class proceeded with humidification and flattening through one method that is fairly well accepted in paper conservation.  These documents were dried between blotter paper and stiff boards, beneath weights.  The resulting documents were flat for storage and handling, but slightly rippled.  Could we do any better?

The second half of the class responded by using a drying method called the hard-soft sandwich.  This method was developed in response to the special needs of tracing paper, in a publication by Hildegard Homburger and Barbara Korbel (see below).  Differences in this method as compared to a traditional blotter stack include:

  • Felt instead of blotter paper as one layer of the stack.
  • Significantly increased weight on the stack.
  • Increased drying time.

    And it worked!
The hard-soft sandwich, a drying method devised for tracing paper

The resulting sheets had fewer ripples in the surface, making subsequent mending of tears easier.

Though these are informal findings, this class did present a unique opportunity to compare drying methods on similar materials with similar provenance and storage history, all from the same collection.  Managing such parameters on historical materials is a major challenge in conservation research.  Thanks to my lab students for taking on this learning experience with me!


Homburger, Hildegard and Barbara Korbel. “Architectural Drawings on Transparent Paper:
Modifications of Conservation Treatments.” Book and Paper Group Annual 18: 25-33.

Students Perform Conservation Treatment on Drawings by Charles Stevens Dilbeck

Once again this spring, we’re excited for my Introduction to Paper Conservation class to collaborate with the Alexander Architectural Archives! Students will perform conservation treatment on drawings from the Charles Stevens Dilbeck (1907 – 1990) collection. Dilbeck is best known for his residential designs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He created romantic cottages with French and Irish influences, as well Texas Ranch style houses. His work is documented and explored further by the Dilbeck Architecture Conservancy.

Dilbeck drawing
A Dilbeck drawing is unrolled for initial examination.

Drawings for treatment consist primarily of graphite on tracing paper. As the students develop introductory treatment skills, our group will work to clean, humidify and flatten, and conduct basic mends. In taking these materials from rolled storage to flat storage, we’ll improve accessibility for patrons and enhance future stability and preservation.

A drawing detail highlights the meticulous work of draftsmen in a mid-20th-century architecture firm.

Life in Stereoscope

Three cheers for Life in Stereoscope: Viewable Vistas, Industry, and Family Life, on view at the UT School of Information through November 16. This exhibit is created by the students in my course, Planning and Understanding Exhibits. Every bit of the exhibit is designed and executed by the students, from item selection and narrative flow to writing text; designing for print; building exhibit supports; creating interactive, educational elements; and promoting the exhibit within UT and beyond. Check us out on Instagram!

Special kudos to our web team, who designed our exhibit website using CollectionBuilder. This open-source software is created by the University of Idaho with support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our class was selected from a competitive pool to provide a test case for this software. The students will provide feedback to help refine this tool that supports the creation of sustainable, digital collections and exhibits.

Special thanks also to visiting stereocard artist Tay Hall, who discussed their process and works at our exhibit reception. Tay’s work demonstrated modern applications for this historical format. Learn more at

Conservation Treatment: McDonald Observatory Drawing

This semester, I was pleased to conduct conservation treatment on an architectural drawing of the McDonald Observatory, a leading center for astronomical research and teaching located in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. This 25″ x 42″ charcoal and graphite drawing, made by University of Texas architects in 1934, is housed at the Alexander Architectural Archives here at the University of Texas.

The drawing had several condition issues when it entered the lab. A large tear extended up the center of the drawing, nearly separating the paper in two. The tear had been previously repaired with pressure-sensitive tape, which had become browned and embrittled over time. The tape repair was visible through the drawing’s thin tracing paper. The tear was misaligned along the tape repair, causing gaps in the image and text, as well as rippling from stress in the paper. Creases and grime had resulted from handling. The charcoal had offset during direct contact with storage materials.

Tape removal
Removing discolored tape
Mending the tear on the light table to ensure proper alignment

During treatment, the drawing underwent surface cleaning and several rounds of humidification and flattening to reduce grime and creasing. The discolored tape was removed manually, with controlled application of moisture to soften areas of stiff adhesive. The tear was realigned and mended with heat-set tissue to minimize water exposure to the moisture-sensitive tracing paper. Wheat starch paste was added in small mended areas to improve strength.

Last, a sink mat was constructed to safely house the drawing. The deep walls of the mat hold its cover sheet away from the drawing to prevent further media offset. Acid-free corrugated board was used for structural elements to provide stiffness with minimal weight. A second ply of board, applied cross-grained, was added to support this oversize drawing.

Many thanks to the Alexander Architectural Archives for the chance to work on this beautiful drawing!

Sound and Media Artist Holland Hopson Visits Algorithmic Assemblages Exhibit

This spring, INF 386E, Planning and Understanding Exhibits, created the exhibit Algorithmic Assemblages: Do Machines Dream of Art?.

Drawings that represent Roller skating covering Hypogean fishes, a student artwork featured in our class exhibit
Drawings that represent Roller skating covering Hypogean fishes, a student artwork featured in our class exhibit

This exhibit featured the data-based artwork A Work of Art for Every Entry in Index – Subjects – Library of Congress by sound and media artist Holland Hopson.  The artwork generates descriptions of non-existent artworks by using actual Library of Congress terminology; our students then created real artworks based on these fabricated descriptions.  We were so pleased to host Holland at our exhibit closing reception, and to work with him throughout the semester!

Exhibit closing reception on April 13, 2023
Exhibit closing reception on April 13, 2023

Holland also presented two talks while visiting us here at UT: “Listening as a Creative Act,” sponsored by the Bureau for Experimental Ethnography and “Data as Medium,” sponsored by UT’s Visual Arts Center.  Thanks to Marina Peterson and MacKenzie Stevens for coordinating these talks, and to Holland for being our visiting artist!

Student Conservation Treatments for Spring 2023

Students in INF 393C, Introduction to Paper Conservation, are excited to apply their treatment skills to two groups of drawings from the Alexander Architectural Archives this spring!  Throughout the course, students learn foundational treatment skills through work on practice materials, and then complete one full treatment on archives materials.

Roy Thomas Architectural Drawing
Student treatment project: architectural drawing by Roy Thomas for Austin’s Kealing Middle School, 1929.

The first group of tracing paper drawings features the original design for Kealing Middle School here in Austin.  The plans were created by architect Roy Thomas, who designed residential, public, and commercial structures in Central Texas from the 1920s – 1950s.  Kealing opened in 1930 as the first junior high for African American students in Austin.  The school closed in 1971 during desegregation.  The original building was razed after a fire in 1983, and Kealing’s current building opened in 1986.

Nicholas Clayton Architectural Drawing
Student treatment project: architectural drawing by Nicholas Clayton for a public school building in Galveston, TX, ca. 1898.

The second group of tracing paper drawings features a number of Galveston buildings designed by architect Nicholas Clayton.  Clayton was one of the first professional architects to become established in Texas.  He’s best known for his work in Galveston between 1873 – 1900, during that city’s heyday as a center of trade and commerce, and the largest city in Texas.  It is likely that the water damage on the students’ drawings came from the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, still the most deadly natural disaster in US history.

We are so pleased to work once again with the Alexander Architectural Archives on these hands-on student experiences!

Join SAA!

The UT Student Chapter of the Society of American Archivists is excited to start our 30th year as a student organization. This semester, we are planning to tour local repositories, network with the wider Austin archivist community, and host a study group for the Certified Archivist Exam. We’re even looking to bring back the one and only Edible Book Festival!

Joining SAA is a great way to meet colleagues and build experience in the archives field. There are no dues this year. To sign up, contact us at You can also join our listserv at

We hope to see you at an SAA event soon!


All Dolled Up: Playing with Identity in 1940s Paper Dolls

Three cheers to the students in INF 386E, Planning and Understanding Exhibits, who successfully launched their class exhibit on paper dolls. Titled All Dolled Up: Playing with Identity in 1940s Paper Dolls, the exhibit explores issues of power and agency; identity and play; gender roles during wartime; and big-screen celebrity. Today’s opening reception featured 1940s-themed music, food, and dancing. The exhibit will be on display in the UTA building now through December 1, 2022. Many thanks to UT’s School of Human Ecology for the chance to work with this fascinating collection.

See our press coverage in Austin Monthly, CultureMap Austin, and Glasstire.

And be sure to also visit the exhibit online!

Exhibit window
All Dolled Up explores play and power in 1940s paper dolls.
Lindy Hop dance steps.
Visitors can learn the Lindy Hop with vinyl dance steps on the floor.
Activity table
Create your own paper doll bookmark, and test your skills finding a doll in the exhibit.
Rita Hayworth cutout
Pose as Rita Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen
Reception table with Jell-o salads
Reception table featuring Jellied Egg Salad and Orange Dream, two 1940s Jell-o molded salad recipes.

Disasters Students Visit Austin Fire Department

This week, students in my Disaster Planning and Response course kicked off our fire unit with a visit to the Austin Fire Department training facility. Arson investigator Nick Ganci and firefighters set up a burn cell modeled after a small apartment, complete with drywall and furniture. Students then placed deaccessioned library books in various locations around the room. The fire began with a candle placed too close to a curtain. As the fire grew, we learned about the ways heat, air flow, construction techniques, and materials impacted its course. Once the fire was extinguished and the site was safe, we collected the books to bring back to the lab.

The Austin Fire Department hosted a burn cell for iSchool students.

During our visit, Ganci introduced us to the fundamentals of firefighter training. He also discussed how his team uses physical evidence to evaluate likely scenarios about a fire’s origin and progression. This was a great opportunity for students to learn about communicating with first-responders and protecting cultural heritage collections.

Before fire
Before fire: placing books in the burn cell.
After fire
After fire: the same corner.

Next week, the students will practice removing soot and ash from burned volumes by using a HEPA vacuum and soot sponges. With the context this hands-on experience provides, we’ll then practice making judgment calls about when to salvage and when to replace materials. This exercise underscores the importance of planning and prevention in managing fire risk.

Salvaged books waiting for cleaning.

Many thanks to Nick Ganci and the Austin Fire Department crew who so generously gave their time and good-naturedly answered our many questions! Also thanks to our book donors: Kate Slaten and Erin Tigelaar (who joined us for the event!) from the Brentwood Elementary School Library and Jeff Newberry from UT’s Collections Deposit Library.